Baron Darling of Roulanish, 1953-2023 – A personal tribute by Nigel Harris

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As a journalist, experience teaches you to just accept, without too much personal reaction, news of deaths of folk in the public eye – but every now and then one comes along which genuinely shocks us.

Elvis Presley and Kirsty MacColl are just a couple who spring to mind for me – and now Alistair Darling – or Baron Darling of Roulanish, as I should call him. At 70 he was taken far too young and I really couldn’t believe the news alert when it popped up on my phone. It really stopped me in my tracks. Very sad news. The tributes started immediately and what struck me (but didn’t surprise me one bit) was that right across the political spectrum these tributes were genuinely warm and sincerely respectful: just about every one used the word ‘decent.’

And Alistair was decent, from his very core to his fingertips…decent in that particularly English way that sadly is neither fashionable nor common these days – especially in politics. I know, I know… Alistair was a proud Scot and would have doubtless raised one of his bushy eyebrows at my saying that…but you get my drift. He was always courteous, polite and calm, all three of which were achievements in their own right, given the volatility (Nastiness? Toxicity? – take your pick) of 21st century UK politics. His gentle Edinburgh accent helped, but I never saw Alistair, either in public or in private, anything other than articulate,  measured and unruffled in his manner and delivery, even when talking to or about people and issues that I know riled him. Some of them deeply.

Alistair led the ‘Better Together’ campaign during the Scottish independence campaign of 2014 and steered the messy unionist campaign to a narrow victory – which I suspect would have been a defeat without Alistair’s leadership and inspiration. Former Labour leader and Prime Minister Gordon Brown spoke of Darling’s “unimpeachable integrity” – yet in all honesty, when he was PM, he didn’t treat him well through No. 10 when Darling was Chancellor from 2007-2010. Alistair said that when he was honest with the British people (now there’s a thing!) that the financial crash could trigger the biggest recession in 60 years, Brown’s enraged No. 10 “unleashed the forces of Hell” against him.

However, after his death, Brown said: “In times of crisis, Alistair was the person you would want in the room because he was calm and he was considered and he had great integrity.” Interestingly, Brown added: “Alistair did not want to lead the ‘Better Together’ campaign and the truth is he had to be dragooned into it.” It doesn’t surprise me at all that having agreed, Alistair then gave it his absolutely best shot, in his usual no-nonsense, considered and calm manner. He was consequently hated by many on the left for working in alliance with the Conservatives on ‘Better Together’ but it was a mark of the man that he put both Scotland and the UK ahead of party politics because he knew that it was necessary. This cannot have been easy for him, for in his student days Alistair had a reputation as a vocal left wing firebrand and his socialism ran deep – but it evolved into the pragmatic approach of his Westminster career. Darling knew that principles were useless without the power needed to drive change.

“The truth is that Alistair never received (nor sought, it must be said) public credit for his many achievements.”

There have been many obituaries far more politically astute than I could ever write; this tribute is purely personal and informed only by my own direct experience of this remarkable man and hugely capable politician – nay, statesman, and we don’t have many of those nowadays. That applies to both front benches today, by the way. There are no circumstances in which you would ever have heard Alistair Darling whipping up a Labour Party conference crowd, for example, by rabble rousing about ‘Tory scum.’

The truth is that Alistair never received (nor sought, it must be said) public credit for his many achievements. “I’m just doing my job,” he’d quietly insist – and change the subject. Worse, the MSM really disliked him, branding him ‘boring.’ Darling’s problem with the media was that if you characterise his political style and approach like the wavy line on an oscilloscope, it was long and only very gently undulating. There were no sharp peaks and troughs of Alistair’s own making – and it was in those peaks and troughs that news stories and headlines are to be found. Because he denied the MSM political behaviour like this that they thrive on, they damned him as boring.

He was actually anything but, as those of us who knew him in private will confirm.

I chatted at length privately with Alistair, every few weeks for the entirety of his four years as SoS for Transport from 2002-2006. We discussed all aspects of the railways and Government policy and I learned a very great deal about his evolving thinking, as it actually developed – but he never crossed any lines in terms of breaching confidences or being indiscreet. He was the master of conversations like this and my Comment pieces in RAIL became increasingly better informed and more insightful as a direct result. I will always be grateful for his confidence and generosity with his time, even when I really disliked some of his policies, notably around light rail where he cancelled schemes in Leeds (now being discussed again) and Liverpool, where the digging was due to start within days.

In private, Alistair was as wry and ironically funny as he was sober and measured in public. He was very good company.  I breezed into his 5th floor Great Minster House office one day (on the corner of the building in the curved ‘turret’ section) and he was standing behind his desk, sifting a sheaf of papers. He greeted me and waved me to the sofa.

“Start your coffee, Nigel, I’ll be with you directly….”

As I put my bag down, I said: “I see from the Daily Mail that you’re XYZ…” (I forget what the issue was now, but I was teasing him)

He didn’t miss a beat. “Yes, I saw that too, Nigel – but you and I both know that it was all complete bollocks…”

These meetings, I was taken aback to discover at the time, were actually as important – and useful – to him, as they were to me. They were not an indulgence. On one occasion, he said: “Nigel, I understand you’ve been meeting with Kim (Howells, Rail Minister, 2003-2004) for some informal meetings.

“Yes, Secretary of State, I have…”

“Well that’s fine,” he said “but you don’t plan on not coming up here to chat, do you..?”

I was completely taken aback. “Well, no,” I stammered. “That’s very flattering, but do you mind if I ask why?”

“Not at all,” he answered “I value our conversations very much because you are one of the very few people who walk through that door and tell me the truth about what you really think. That is incredibly valuable to me.”

These are the essential political and media tools of a healthy democracy.

I really used to look forward to my meetings with Alistair and he was always supportive of the industry – and RAIL. He went out of his way to attend the National Rail Awards in September most years and sat alongside me at the glitzy dinner several times, at The Grosvenor House Hotel in Park Lane. On one occasion, as the introductory video was playing and the music crashed in our ears, he leaned over and said: “Who picked this music, Nigel?”

“I did,” I replied. He just nodded and smiled.

It was Queen’s ‘One Vision.’

“In private, Alistair was as wry and ironically funny as he was sober and measured in public.”

I visited him one day after the 2004 Rail Review in which he abolished the Strategic Rail authority, transferring its role over to the DfT, where Permanent Secretary the late Sir David Rowlands was known to dislike the SRA intensely – and that’s putting it mildly. One day, Rowlands was just disappearing into his own office as I arrived in Darling’s outer office for a meeting. Rowlands must have glimpsed me out of the corner of his eye and whirled around. “What are you doing here?” he asked.

“Just here for a chat about railways,” I replied.

“Ha!” he retorted. “Buy yourself a bus ticket – trains are finished!” To this day I’m not sure the extent to which he was joking. This was the man to whom Darling handed the SRA’s authority and responsibilities.

Darling asked me at one of our private meetings what I thought of the 2004 review and its outcome.

I took a deep breath and told him I thought he’d made a big mistake for the railway – and a potentially catastrophic mistake for the Government. In scrapping the SRA, I told him, he’d set a time bomb ticking with a fuse of undetermined length.

Those bushy eyebrows went up. “Why?” he asked.

“Firstly, because civil servants are totally ill-equipped to do what the SRA has done well (sorting out the Southern power supplies and wrestling the West Coast Route Modernisation costs back under control – just two big wins for which the SRA never got the credit it surely deserved) – and that will cause problems in the future.

“But worse from the Government’s point of view is that you have nationalised blame. Sooner or later there will be a major calamity – either – God forbid – another train crash or a major policy and operational blunder – and the blame for that will rapidly work its way up the system unimpeded and it will have nowhere to come to rest until it lands on the SoS’s desk, where the buck will stop. You’ve scrapped the political firewall protecting the SoS from railway chaos and political controversy.”

He didn’t discuss it further.

We had one such incident eight years later when the WCML franchise process collapsed, but we staggered through that. It gives me no pleasure to say that my prediction was spot-on, and that it took until May 2018 – 14 years later – in the spectacular and calamitous collapse of the new passenger timetable. That timebomb had finally exploded with dreadful effect on industry and Government, on SoS Chris Grayling’s desk, powerfully proving my 2004 point. Grayling repeatedly said this was nothing directly to do with him, but thanks to Darling’s abolition of the SRA, it absolutely did. Had Darling not scrapped the SRA, then the firewall it provided would have granted Grayling the political distance needed to protect and insulate the SoS, as the British Rail Board had done before privatisation.

And who could look at the miserable job being done today by the DfT in running the railway and not conclude that handing the SRA’s role to DfT officials was anything other than a disaster? The DfT hated the SRA partly because of anger that it was doing a job which the civil service saw as theirs – and partly because the SRA team was seen by the Department as overly-paid, uppity whippersnappers.

It was the one big mistake I think Alistair made, but like all politicians and ministers he had acted on bad advice being dripped in his ear by self-serving ’advisers’ with an agenda, just as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was led by the nose in his scrapping of HS2 north of Birmingham. As the French so memorably say: ‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’ (the more things change, the more they stay the same).

Alistair and I exchanged Christmas cards and seasonal greetings each year until 2022 and we swapped occasional messages. The last time I saw him was about five years ago when he responded warmly to an email in which I said that if he fancied it, we should meet for ‘coffee and a gossip.’

“What a great idea!” he replied. “Come to the House and we’ll have tea on the terrace….”

“Darling’s very special brand of modesty, decency and self-effacing public service is sorely missed – and we are much the poorer for its scarcity.”

We did just that and spent a couple of hours on a fine, warm, sunny day, sitting by the Thames gossiping and reminiscing about those four years up to 2006, during which Alistair delivered a masterclass in what a competent Secretary of State should look like. He was matched in this only by Patrick (now Lord) McLoughlin, who also did four years in the same job and served with equal competence and capability, imho.

At our last meeting, I had been keen to chat to Alistair about the global financial crash, when his calm and measured approach as Chancellor of the Exchequer prevented a catastrophic UK banking collapse. I’d read his book ‘Back from the brink; 1000 days at No 11’ and been amazed by it. It’s a revelation – it reads like a novel and is incredibly exciting – yes, really! It is also scathing by implication, and even directly, about bankers – the self-appointed ‘masters of the universe!’ I had asked Alistair just how close we’d come to financial nuclear meltdown.

“I was in Brussels for a Council of Ministers meeting,” he replied. “At around 1100 an aide alerted me to an urgent telephone call from Fred Goodwin [Ed – Goodwin headed Royal Bank of Scotland, at that stage a massive bank of global importance] who told me that RBS was in very serious trouble and that disaster was imminent. I asked him how long we had?

“Fred replied that RBS would run out of money by 2pm that day – just three hours away.” Darling’s immediate actions staved off disaster and saved the banking system in the UK at least from complete collapse. I really do recommend Darling’s book – it’s a great read.

Eventually gossiped-out, we prepared our farewells.

“Just before you go, Nigel, do you mind if I give you a piece of advice?”

“Of course, not!” I replied, wondering what on earth was coming?

“At some point, you absolutely MUST write a book,” he said, to my complete amazement. “You are just about the only journalist and policy commentator worth his salt still left standing, who has been around from the start. You’ve written about the privatisation process from the outset. You’ve watched us all come and go and you’ve talked to us all. You have a unique viewpoint and story that really must be told and published at some point.”

I was taken aback and humbled by his warm words – but not entirely convinced at the time, I have to admit. It took a couple of years for me to realise that he maybe had a point – and I finally followed his advice and started writing, during lockdown when we all spent far too long at home, with time on our hands.

I’ve got a couple of tens of thousands of words drafted but I haven’t drafted much recently. I really must get back to it.

I’m only sorry that I won’t be able to send my old friend Alistair a copy of my manuscript for his comments, when it’s done.

Baron Darling was definitely taken too young and looking around the cabinet table at the self-serving and often spiteful, manipulative  ministers of today, driven by malice and personal agendas, Darling’s very special brand of modesty, decency and self-effacing public service is sorely missed – and we are much the poorer for its scarcity.

I close with the final paragraph of the best tribute of the many I read to Alistair, after his untimely death. It was written by Stephen Daisley in the Spectator and this was his conclusion:

“Alistair Darling was a leader, a pragmatist, an idealist, a sincere social democrat, a doer, a thinker, but he deserves to be remembered as a patriot – a Scottish patriot and a British patriot. He not only saved the country, he saved it twice. In death he is due the recognition he never asked for in life.”

Hear, hear to that. Farewell, Alistair. Thank you and RIP.